Ball State University's Immersive Learning

Ball State University's Immersive Learning

The university is redefining education with a program that lets students engage in intense, creative, collaborative, personal, and, at times, real-life ventures.

In today's competitive higher education environment, a college or a university cannot be seen as just another good institution in a landscape filled with many other similar entities--some a little stronger, others a bit weaker. Today, as branding experts will tell us, it's all about differentiation. But at Ball State University, we think it goes much deeper than that for very compelling, even urgent reasons.

At Ball State, we are redefining education by creating a high-tech--and high-touch--immersive learning environment that allows students to engage with learning in a new way: intense, creative, collaborative, personal, and, at times, even in ways that mirror the risk and reward of real-life ventures. We believe this is an essential way to help shape our students for leadership in the 21st century and to orient education toward the needs of knowledge economics in the future.

By immersing themselves in a project, students achieve much more than simply a grade. In most cases, they become so engrossed in the projects that they quickly race past traditional grading scales and achieve an unprecedented level of learning, establish deeper connections to their areas of study, build a greater understanding of the relationships between their disciplines and others, glean key insights into their career choices, and develop stronger ties to the communities and industries in which they've worked.

Ball State is dedicated to offering in-depth immersive experiences in each of the university's seven colleges through a number of special programs, courses, and institutes. We define immersive experiences as typically worth more than three credits. These experiences engage a group of students (frequently an interdisciplinary one) in collaborative work, are mentored by a faculty member, usually establish partnerships with one or more community entities, and result in an end product, such as a book, play, film, business plan, product prototype, or report.

In these experiences, the students drive the learning process and play a critical role in defining the end product. It is "active learning" at its best, and the experiences connect students to the industries in which they want to establish their careers. Chin-Sook Pak, who left the setting of her traditional classroom for one semester to coordinate an immersive course at our Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry, acknowledged that it is a different way of teaching. "I wasn't the expert anymore, and that was difficult," she admits. "The students had tremendous autonomy. They were the instigators of action, and actually in some parts, they were braver than I because I'm always calculating the risks."

By immersing themselves in a project, students achieve much more than simply a grade.

These experiences are well beyond the pilot program phase. Throughout the university, we have woven a rich tapestry of immersive learning, from dedicated centers to capstone courses, from community-based projects to intensive study abroad opportunities. We are successfully forging many models--all adapted to fit our various colleges' and communities' needs.

The focus on immersive learning is central to the way in which Ball State conceptualizes its mission. While we have a history of providing personal attention and exceptional access to professors who are outstanding in their fields, through immersive experiences we are fostering collaboration between faculty and students. We are creating ways for all students--including freshmen--to participate in these experiences, putting the latest technology into their hands, and encouraging them to take creative risks.

"I think Ball State is a wonderful place because the resources and the constant support and nourishment I received were just unparalleled--it helped me evolve into a much stronger storyteller," says Jaron Henrie-McCrea, recent graduate and winner of a 2005 Gold Student Academy Award. "I could also get my hands on the best equipment like high-definition cameras or work in state-of-the-art editing bays at any time."

We are redefining academic excellence by building a culture of innovation and creativity. Through the development of experiential learning across our university, we are envisioning a future in which at least one immersive experience is available to every Ball State student, making this our hallmark of education redefined.

It's a formula that is working, too. The creativity and passion for these experiences are prompting our students to develop their skills outside of the classroom while still using university technology and receiving university support. Henrie-McCrea was the first student at Ball State--or any university in Indiana--to win a Student Academy Award. This summer, Perspective, a short film by telecommunications majors Travis Hatfield and Samuel Day, also won the gold medal in the alternative category. Both of these projects involved interdisciplinary teams of students--directors, actors, writers, and technical crews--who brought their creative visions to life in their spare time.

Completely committing themselves to creating these films, being able to collaborate with telecommunications and theatre students--all while being supported by Ball State's Center for Media Design (CMD)--gave the students a "film school" experience without the university having an official film school.

"Without a doubt, winning gold medals at the Student Academy Awards in two consecutive years is an example of the strength of our digital cinema program, which says a great deal about us since we don't have a film school," says Rodger Smith, associate director of the CMD and the film's executive producer.

One of the models we've created is the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry. Each year, three or four faculty members are selected to participate by proposing a topic to be explored, and they, in turn, each recruit an interdisciplinary team of 15 students to be in their seminar. In these seminars, the professors and students work side-by-side for one semester to investigate a subject in order to create something new--a book, a play, a radio program, a DVD, or a museum exhibit--that can be shared with the community to stimulate dialog and awareness, says Joe Trimmer, the center's director.

"In this process, creating leads to more inquiry, and inquiry leads to more creating, establishing a powerful feedback loop that engages the mind and the emotions and thus produces deeper learning," he says.

The faculty member is credited with a full teaching load, and the seminar is the students' only assignment, for which they receive a full semester's worth of credit. Assessment data from surveys show how the semester affected the students' educational experience, career choices, and attitudes toward community service. One student reported that "the center changed my life. It helped me become more creative and confident, helped me develop professional and personal skills, expanded my relationships, and enriched my character."

Since they are creating a product, it's not surprising that technology is intertwined with these experiences. In many cases, the technological aspect is more intense because the students have to learn new software programs or how to operate equipment before they can continue. And more times than not, through collaboration, they come up with the best way to maximize the use of the technology. In the case of one immersive experience, the software that students used to create a virtual art gallery was so new that the students began an ongoing dialogue with its developers and helped the company write the users manual as their interaction with the application revealed glitches not yet addressed by the programmers.

In another seminar, a group of students learned how to write, shoot, and produce documentaries--but with a distinctive Latin flair. They created Sobrevivir-four mini-dramas or telenovelas on DVD--geared toward helping Indiana's burgeoning Hispanic immigrant population better understand America's laws and culture. Once the semester was over, requests for the telenovelas started coming in from around the country. They were also featured on Univision, the nation's largest Hispanic network. At last count, nearly 700 copies had been distributed.

For one student, the seminar changed his career aspirations. When Rafael Briones first came to Ball State, he wanted to be a constitutional law attorney. But Sobrevivir provided him with a new vision for his future. "I learned about the media and how powerful and efficient it is," he says. "From there, I fell in love with it--it was a life-changing experience, and now I want to produce videos for a living." Briones is now pursuing a master's degree in telecommunications with an emphasis in digital storytelling instead of attending law school.

Other student teams have produced books like The Other Side of Middletown, published by San Francisco-based publisher AltaMira. The book focused on the ethnographic study of the black community in Muncie, Ind., a population overlooked in the original, groundbreaking Middletown studies conducted by Robert and Helen Lynd in the 1920s. The initiative recently earned the Margaret Mead Award for outstanding research.

At another center on campus, students can spend an entire semester working in a newsroom steeped in convergence. The NewsLink project is the cornerstone of our initiative studying digital journalism convergence, which is the practice of sharing and cross-promoting content from a variety of media through newsroom collaborations and outside partnerships. NewsLink stories and weather reports can be seen and heard on the internet, listened to on the local NPR affiliate, and viewed on the local PBS station.

The studio, which was designed and built by students from Ball State's College of Architecture and Planning, is filled with state-of-the-art telecommunications equipment. Every day during the academic year, students air their stories via high-tech digital equipment. Along with addressing daily newsroom duties, the students, working side-by-side with industry professionals, are also shaping what future newscasts will look like.

We are educating the first wave of graphic designers to work in the interactive news industry, where the viewer controls the newscast. As part of our interactive television news graphics course, students learn to create graphic interface systems for televisions, iPods, cell phones, and personal digital assistants that will allow viewers to select the news they want to see. "All of the communications students taking the course have had to explore how to apply their knowledge of their specific areas of expertise to an entirely new mode of information gathering and presentation," says Jennifer George-Palilonis, one of the professors teaching the course. "There are certainly many professional outlets exploring these concepts, but we are the first student group in the world to explore iTV design in a classroom setting."

Recent graduate Alyssa Ivanson readily immersed herself in these technological environs and also logged plenty of on-camera experience as one of NewLink's lead anchors. "A lot of the experiences that I had at NewsLink, I'm now experiencing at WANE-TV, so I've been through this before," she says. "So I say, 'OK, I know how to handle this, I know how to go from here and what the next step should be.'"

Her semester on the set gave her the credentials that prospective employers desire. Upon graduation, she accepted a job reporting and producing at a mid-size market CBS affiliate in the Midwest--leapfrogging her competition who, without having the benefit of this type of experience, typically must start in the smallest markets and work their way up.

Along with our centers on or near campus, we also have developed many international immersive experiences, such as our CapAsia program. During the 10-week field study, students explore many South Asian cities and absorb rich experiences in world architecture, urbanism, and planning. The motto of the initiative is "building to learn," and that certainly rang true during the 2005 trip.

Long after the program had been planned and the itinerary set, a devastating tsunami destroyed the coasts of many Asian countries. Initially, Sri Lanka was not on the trip itinerary. But with a tragedy that affected much of the world just a stone's throw away from CapAsia's planned stops, the schedule was altered. Rather than be a small cog in a mammoth relief effort, CapAsia founder, director and Sri Lanka native Nihal Perera partnered with the small fishing village of Kalametiya, which had been devastated.

The 21 students on the trip initially thought they would build a demonstration house--a model for the villagers to follow. But after just a couple of days, the villagers began to dig their own foundations, which inspired the students to change their goals. Once they redirected their energies into rebuilding homes instead of creating a model, the project took on new meaning.

Before the students left the village, they had restored a lagoon and a bird sanctuary, repaired fishing boats, and helped build 30 single-story houses. Along with sore muscles and blistered hands, they learned why the villagers built the way they do.

"They learned to participate in their processes, rather than getting the villagers to participate in our processes," Perera explains.

They even took the time to acknowledge the children of the village. Because the parents were undertaking the monumental task of rebuilding their village--and their lives--the children were inadvertently being overlooked. Using materials and debris scattered about the village, the students constructed a makeshift playground. The sight of children playing cricket and volleyball and painting lifted everyone's spirits, energized the project, and deepened the students' connection to their work.

Building a playground was not an item on the syllabus to be checked off by the professors. And vice versa, the students didn't bemoan the fact that extra work was "being assigned" to them. The need presented itself as the project progressed, and the students enthusiastically remedied the situation. "We do not see ourselves as administrators who have to carry out tasks and count and measure everything," Perera says. "We believe in achieving goals--academic, personal, experiential--and also in the significance of the process."

Perera philosophizes about immersive experiences, comparing them to journeys. "The journey is as important as the destination or goal," he says. "So there is some open-endedness to our field studies to be very flexible, yet rigorous."

Additional immersive experiences at Ball State have evolved from traditional internships to faculty members looking to bring relevant, real-world applicability to what students are learning in the classroom. Through the Business Fellows program, nearly 200 Ball State students have partnered with Indiana businesses and communities on nearly 25 projects, including studying the potential use of cluster and grid computing techniques at the Indianapolis International Airport and creating a business plan for a professional dinner theatre company.

Business Fellows faculty mentors guide teams of students who work on problem-based projects to improve services, quality, or competitiveness. The projects also can increase business or develop new job opportunities. Business Fellows, which is funded by a $1.5 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., works in concert with Ball State's Building Better Communities initiative, which is establishing itself as an invaluable economic engine for Indiana, explains Frank Sabatine, dean of the School of Extended Education.

"The projects have been a great success in communities all around the state," he says. "The momentum from these successes will allow us to create new business connections in a wide variety of disciplines that will also help increase future job opportunities for our students in Indiana."

For the Indianapolis International Airport, seven students studied the use of cluster and grid computing techniques. Comprising multiple personal computers networked to harness their cumulative power and available resources, the enhanced system of the cluster computer can outperform traditional supercomputers at a fraction of the cost.

There's also another advantage of having networked computers distributed throughout a facility. "If there is a terrorist attack or natural disaster like a major storm that wipes out a portion of the network, the system can function with the remaining working components of the grid," says Fred Kitchens, information systems and operation management professor and project coordinator.

From our initial successes on many fronts, we are committed to expanding the number of immersive experiences available to students. Our experiences involves a triad--students, faculty, and industry partners--rather than relying on the traditional structures of internships or faculty working with students. This model creates synergies that can accelerate product testing and development, provides deeper learning for our students, and firmly connects them to professionals within the industry in which they want to establish their careers.

We have moved forward quickly with this model in the key area of digital media, a field in which the university has already established itself as a rising star. This digital focus is being spearheaded by the Center for Media Design. The center coordinates a university-wide agenda for digital technology that involves all of our colleges. Through its management, research, and development leadership, the CMD has provided a platform for immersive learning experiences for students and applied research focusing on digital media. The CMD was established as part of a $20 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. Now a second $20 million grant will fund the creation of at least four immersive learning institutes.

The first, the Institute for Digital Fabrication and Rapid Prototyping, is melding architecture, engineering, and construction into a seamless digital enterprise. It is bringing together Indiana's material suppliers--from the limestone producers in Southern Indiana to the steel mills of Gary--and connecting them with designers and students worldwide to expedite the transformation of computer-generated designs into finished products on almost any scale.

As a forerunner to the institute, director Kevin Klinger served as the coordinator for Streams: Data Driven Fabrications Connecting with Indiana's White River through the Virginia Ball Center. Thirteen students designed multiple art installations using newly released 3D modeling software. Manufacturers were then able to download the students' plans and create the installations to spec for sites along Indiana's White River, from Muncie to Indianapolis. In some cases, the students machined the parts themselves in the College of Architecture and Planning's Digital Simulation Lab. They created permanent and temporary installations, such as sculptures, platforms, and walkways in cultural centers, a state park, and a city park near downtown Indianapolis.

"This is exciting because digital fabrication is such a hot topic, one that a lot of people around the country are experimenting with," Klinger says. "The process of designing, fabricating, and building is being completely transformed, and our students will be a part of that transformation."

The creation of the Institute for Intermedia and Animation is putting Ball State at the forefront of the three-dimensional animation industry. The centerpiece of the institute is an animation studio that immerses students in the production of intermedia art and 3-D animation.

To visually showcase the possibilities inherent in this institute, John Fillwalk, the institute's director, put a new twist on wireless technology by bringing traffic on Ball State's wireless network to life via an interactive digital sculpture.

As people logged onto the network, their activity appeared as sounds, colors, patterns, or images. Students helped with the outdoor sculpture, which was located in the center of campus and consisted of four projection screens, speakers, and lights that broadcast interactive sound and video produced as a reaction to the amount of traffic on the campus' 15 wireless zones.

"Our center is melding digital art and music with wireless technology, to create interactive experiences like the sculpture, that, in many cases, will transform viewers from spectators to active participants," Fillwalk says. "It is also connecting students with professional technical animators, fabricators, presentation artists and designers, art directors, broadcast design motion graphics specialists, game developers, and web designers."

A third institute was shaped in part by more than 25 students who created a new high-definition film. Students from theatre, music, and telecommunications collaborated to write, act, and produce the original work Mahd, which unveiled the potential of the Institute for Digital Entertainment and Education (IDEE).

Jessica Keffaber, the film's producer and a telecommunications student, said working in such an advanced environment shaped her career goals. She was able to contribute to a high-definition film, work with the latest equipment, and gain a foothold on her career.

"I was able to work with professionals in my field like Derek Hammer of Hammer Motion Pictures and with the newest hi-def camera from Canon, the XLH1--a camera that few professionals have had a chance to experiment with," Keffaber says. "There's no doubt that the project helped me find my calling and define my career path."

IDEE is serving as a production house that is bringing artistic vision to life and providing Indiana filmmakers access to a proven infrastructure and talent pool of students like Keffaber. The innovative partnership is benefiting our theatre and telecommunications students, who are able to showcase their award-winning talents on a daily basis to up-and-coming filmmakers while building professional and artistic relationships that will grow as the students and filmmakers progress in their careers.

"This institute is Janus-based--the Roman god with two faces," says Smith, the film's director and director of IDEE. "One face is looking toward curriculum and students, while the other looks outward at commercial development and the media world students will encounter in the next few years."

The fourth institute, the News Research Institute (NRI), will identify and offer practical solutions to issues impacting the news industry and its consumers.

NRI will also bring together interdisciplinary groups of students, faculty, and industry professionals to help the news industry prepare for an uncertain future as well as to educate upcoming journalists through rigorous immersive learning projects.

"While still relevant in today's society, the news industry is grappling with a rapid rate of technological advances that are changing how consumers access information," says Roger Lavery, dean of the College of Communication, Information, and Media. "At the same time, the industry also faces challenges as newspaper readership drops, television viewing becomes more segmented and traditional radio programming is battling satellite options."

Through relevant immersive learning that engages students in study abroad, research, and intense in- and out-of classroom experiences, and through a university environment that is vibrant and supportive, we believe we've redefined education by creating a setting unlike any other. This defines our priorities and our focus--a place where undergraduates experience creativity, energy, connections, and transformation and where faculty are collaborators energized by their students.

American writer, editor, and printer Elbert Hubbard once said, "The biggest mistake you can make in life is to be constantly afraid of making one." Life is about risk and rewards, pursuing your passion, connecting with other people and creating synergy to take your dreams to new heights. At Ball State, our faculty take creative risks and encourage their students to do the same through immersive, real-life learning.

If Hubbard were alive today, I believe he'd embrace our sense of who we are and where we're going. I believe he'd also find kindred spirits in our students and faculty.


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